"This is a commercial hunt that is actually sanctioned by the government. [T]here are quotas on how many animals the fishermen can take," Reiss added.
Hideki Moronuki, a spokesman for Japan's Fisheries Agency in Tokyo, confirmed the local government issues a permit for the annual dolphin hunt.
"Japan traditionally utilized dolphins as one of the marine resources like fish and squid, and in some areas still they have a tradition to eat dolphin meat," he said.
The hunts primarily take place in the remote southern villages of Taiji and Futo, where dolphin meat is considered a delicacy.
Moronuki adds that after the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, dolphin meat began to supplement whale meat.
But outside the few villages where the hunts take place, conservationists say dolphin meat is not eaten.
Japanese whalers continue to hunt whales in the name of scientific research. Whale meat from the hunts is then legally sold in markets. Conservationists say dolphin meat, which contains high levels of mercury, is marketed as whale meat in these markets.
The dolphins are also used as pet food and fertilizer, according to conservationists.
The best of the dolphins captured in the annual drive hunts are kept alive and sold to Japanese and Chinese aquariums for upwards of U.S. $50,000 each, Reiss says.
"They take the crème de la crème and hold them," she said. "In fact, they are apparently holding 30 dolphins right now alive for shipping to an aquarium in Beijing."
Moronuki said dolphins are "very popular in aquariums" and supplying the animals to aquariums in Japan and China is no different than supplying them to aquariums in the U.S.
Reiss describes the annual hunt as an "extremely disturbing" tradition.
Fishers surround a pod of dolphins at sea in their boats, lower metal poles into the water, and bang the poles with hammers.
The noise interferes with the dolphins' sonar, causing the marine mammals to panic. The fishers herd the frightened animals into shallow bays, where the killing takes place, often by slitting the animals' throats, turning the water red with blood.
Following several widely published images and videos of the hunt, Reiss says, the fishers now conduct the slaughter under white tents to keep it out of public view.
"But we know what's going on inside," she said. "There's actually gruesome footage showing the actual slaughter from undercover folks."
The tradition appalls Reiss in part because scientific research suggests dolphins are highly intelligent animals that share with humans emotions such as empathy.
For example, research has shown that dolphins, great apes, and most recently elephants are able to recognize themselves in a mirror, a possible sign of self-awareness.
(Related Story: "Elephants Recognize Selves in Mirror, Study Says" [October 30, 2006].)
"This is not touchy-feely stuff. This is what we are seeing in terms of our science," Reiss said.
"So I'm hoping we will become more empathic to these animals and actually do something to help them as well."
Peter Standring contributed to this story.
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